CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. >> There is a palpable sense of the earth, of earthiness, in director Jeannine Haass' hit-and-miss production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" at Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education.
Heroism in the hardscrabble, grudgingly yielding atmosphere in Salem, Mass., circa 1692, is simply a matter of getting through the day. But the days, and existence, become fraught as an unstable teenage girl named Abigail Williams (a credible Catherine Seeley) ignites what becomes an out-of-control frenzy of rampant charges of witchcraft that leave lives destroyed, reputations and farms in ruin. Virtually no family is untouched, including that of John Proctor (David Snider) and his wife, Elizabeth (Erin Ouellette), who sent Abigail packing seven months earlier after learning John had committed adultery with the sexually heated, impressionable young girl — an episode for which John is trying to reclaim his honor and his soul while Abby, whom John has firmly rejected, is determined to win him back, no matter what the cost.
First produced in 1953, Miller found in the 1692 Salem witch trials the historic precedent for and embodiment of the perilous hysteria that was gripping America in 1953 — the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, convened to expose so-called Communist infiltration and subversion of America's political, military and cultural institutions, particularly Hollywood.
More than 60 years after its premiere, "The Crucible" stands as a powerful, deeply resonant work of theater not only because of the moral issues it raises, but also because of its intensely personal stories — one, in particular, at its center.
That story has to do with the Proctors, played here by Snider and Ouellette with riveting intensity, poignancy and unadorned honesty. When Elizabeth is charged in court, Proctor, knowing what is motivating Abigail, moves to clear Elizabeth by denouncing Abigail and exposing her, even if that means acknowledging his own sin in the process. What ensues is a battle for honor, for truth; for bringing light into a setting that resists light; for doing the right thing, especially at a time of enormous risk.
Snider's Proctor is a hulking bear of a figure; a god-fearing man who will not suffer fools or hypocrites gladly; a man of simple means and aims who wants nothing more than to atone for his sins and reclaim his life with Elizabeth, who is struggling to trust a man who has fathered their two children, provided for her, loved her — loves her still – and has yet betrayed her. As played by Snider and Ouellette, John and Elizabeth's two scenes together get deep under the skin of Miller's play and gives Haas' production its most emotionally authentic, haunting moments.
As Reverend Hale. Digby Baker-Porazinski delivers a convincing, well-developed, shrewdly paced portrayal of a cleric who, unlike most of his peers, allows reason to lead him to the truth.
Ron Komora is reasonably effective as Salem's spiritual leader, The Reverend Parris, who is more concerned about creature comforts and self-preservation than he is about the spiritual needs of his parishoners.
Haas takes a generally orthodox approach to Miller's play, which is fine. Her biggest miscalculation lies in her misguided color- and gender-blind casting of Lia Russell-Self — who appears at the beginning of the play as Tituba, a Haitian housemaid whose secretly observed dancing in the woods with Abigail and the other girls in the village begins the downward spiral of events — as Judge Danforth, a fearsome prosecutor who gives lip-service to being fair and reasonable but is determined to root out moral corruption and evil wherever he can find it, even if, in truth, it doesn't exist. Beyond raising a host of questions that challenge one's willing suspension of disbelief, Russell-Self offers an earnest, hard-working, effortful performance, built on obvious choices, that lacks nuance and authority.
"The Crucible" has withstood the test of time not only because of its currency but because it is masterly crafted, rich in language, ideas, and character — qualities that, in this production, are in full array, and then some, whenever Ouellette, Baker-Porazinksi and especially Snider are on stage.
What: "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller. Directed by Jeannine Haas
With (principals): David Snider, Erin Ouellette, Catherine Seeley, Ron Komora, Lia Russell-Self, Digby Baker-Porazinski, Chris Barlow
Designers: Calvin Anderson, lighting and projections; Sherry Recinella. costumes; Erin Ouellette, make-up
Where: Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education, 25 E. Main St., Cambridge, N.Y.
When: Now through May 8. Evenings — Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2
Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes
Tickets: $25 (students $10)
How: (518) 677-2495; hubbardhall.org